Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Written in the Sky

There are, among many, two very beautiful things here in Iraq. One is the warm glow that reaches across the flat terrain every evening. Sunlight stretching through the atmosphere with nary a hill betwixt you and it's source is magical. Objects glow with deep violet shadows and bright orange highlights. Many a Marine has come up to me wanting an email address so they can send me a beautiful sunset they've captured on a handy digital camera. The other thing of beauty, which takes a little while to develop a taste for, is Arabic calligraphy. Calligraphy means beautiful writing, and once the left brain surrenders trying to gleen literal meaning wandering up and down the rows of complex Koranic script, a harvest of visual inventiveness and vitality is there to satisfy the right brain's eye. I've tried to wed these two visual ideas, flaming sunset and Muslim calligraphy, in this watercolor. Although the sky here is almost always a great featureless expanse, there are times when high up delicate strokes of cirrus clouds leave their icy signatures. I'm not speaking of contrails from jets, but expressive stokes of satin white across the deepest blue of the sky. I can't help but wonder if these etheral shapes are the orginal inspirations for the Arabic alphabet. This scene shows a Marine standing post at the Entry Contol Point(ECP)for E/2/7 in downtown Fallujah. In the background stands a mosque freshly patched up following the previous years epic battle. This particular structure was the scene, both inside and out, of some of the bloodiest fighting.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Breathe Deep the Gathering Gloom....

Some of you may surmise from the title of today's post that I'm a big Moody Blues fan. Nights in White Satin, they just don't write lyrics like that song anymore. "Cold hearted orb that rules the night, removes the colors from our sight, red is grey and yellow white...." Today I struggled with a nocturne. I have a very vivid memory of a trip out into Fallujah shortly after first arriving here. Under a blazing full moon we visited a gothic nightmare of a place called Observation Post Ethan. Getting into OP Ethan was like entering the decaying skeletal remains of a leviathan. The building's roof was flayed off of the rafters and hanging in fleshy tatters. To get to the main part of the OP you had to cross a courtyard thick with the dendrus of battle and, in the light of a full moon, combed by the exposed rafter's jagged shadows. I returned to OP Ethan during the day and took photos. Today I attempted to translate those day photos into a night scene. In preparation I googled "paintings, moonlight" and happened on a wonderful exhibition the National Gallery of Art put together a couple years ago devoted to Frederic Remington called "The Color of Night". Here's a quote that blew me away:

Layered, complex, and technically innovative, these images of night are also profoundly personal works of art. Filled with danger, threatened violence, and menacing silence, they mirror—metaphorically—Remington's experience of war.

Apparently Remington, after covering the Spanish American War in Cuba for Colliers Weekly, returned changed in significant ways both creatively and personally.

"Menacing silence" expresses perfectly what I was after. Nocturnes are very difficult to create. Remington was known for them as was Whistler and a Pennsylvania Impressionist named George Sotter. I haven't got it quite figured out yet, but it seems that your palette needs to be tuned heavily in the key of green, which, like sour apples, isn't always the most pleasing experience. But I gave it a shot and here's the result.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Barbwire and HESCOs

This is an image which is played out over and over both here and in Afghanistan; combat engineers putting out barbwire and setting up HESCO barriers. HESCOs are large light gray foursquare bags, fitted into wire mesh receptacles and then filled with dirt. Think of a paper grocery bag with its top edges folded over lining a trash can. Urban legend has it that each HESCO is incredibly expensive. Based on the rumors, which I won't repeat, anyone who invested in their namesake company prior to 9/11 is standing in high cotton. Inside the perimeter of these HESCO fortresses a thick blanket of gravel is laid down over the dirt. As a result inside the wire one develops a certain way of walking, much like the bowlegged gait used when strolling across soft deep sand at the beach. The crunch of boots trodding over golfball size rocks is the basic soundtrack of life here. The engineers wear thick leather gloves when unrolling and laying out barbwire. What you see here is a Marine creating a manageable skein of wire from a dense heavy mother spool. Somewhere in a cargo pocket out of sight is a heavy duty wire cutter. Having a good wire cutter readily available is a necessity for another reason. Barbwire is virtually invisible at night through NVGs(night vision goggles)and just about every Marine and soldier in Iraq can relate episodes where yards of it has wrapped itself around the axle and tires of an unsuspecting HUMVEE or 7 ton truck creating hideously confounding Gordian knots. Like Alexander the Great's response to Gordius' challenge there's only one solution(usually discovered after a futile attempt at backing up has geometrically compounded the problem)available to the Marines, cut, cut and cut some more.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Returning to the World....of Color

As you've probably noticed, other than the photographs, the overwhelming majority of new artwork posted here has been black and white graphite drawings. Over the next couple weeks I'll try to rectify that with a series of small watercolors. The piece with this posting shows a patrol of Marines from 3rd Platoon F/2/1 along the south bank of the Euphrates west of Ubaydi, Iraq. The north bank, which many Marines thought was Syria, was barren. Along their line of march stretched miles of fields broken by orchards and windbreaks of delicate poplars. Every kilometer or so there were ancient, but still functioning aquaducts. The pastoral stillness was broken only by the shugging heartbeat of equally decrepit pumps drawing water up from the river and channeling it down well packed earthen troughs out into the thirsty fields.

Today I attended the first of several briefs that are part of the standard issue "returning to the world" readjustment process. The Marines are very aware that the transition from Iraq back to the States, from combat to home and hearth, is one that needs to be handled with the same tactical devotion as a full frontal assault on a fortified position. Today's initial meeting was conducted by a chaplain and dealt primarily with family and post-traumatic stress issues. Like the food in the chow halls over here, the ideas and information were mostly very good and dished up in a tasteful and interesting way. The chaplain, like most I've gotten to know and observe, was adept at seasoning the material with necessary dashes of ribald humor, while at the same time balancing that with hearty warmth and deep-dish seriousness. He peppered his presentation with “can I have an Amen”s and “oorah”s. The thing which most caught my ear was the insistence that we "warriors", whether cook or trigger puller, share our stories with each other as often as possible. Prefaced with a brief synopsis of the tale of Ulysses, the palliative value of storytelling could not, according to the padre, be stressed enough. I realized there and then how blessed I am by my mission as a professional storyteller of sorts. People, including myself, often wonder how is it I can go into combat with the frequency I do and not be a raving nut case. ( I recognize that there are a couple exes, marital and otherwise, who might want to weigh in and have their say at this point.) Today I realized it's in large part because I get to tell my story, and knowing that you good folks are out there listening, to quote Robert Frost, has made all the difference. Thanks.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Of Quasimoto, Dogs, Death and God

Out on the battlefield communication is important on many levels. Company commanders follow closely behind their Marines as they press forward through a maze of walled courtyards and Byzantine streets. With a radio handset pressed into one ear and a strangle hold on a well worn map these seasoned professionals orchestrate a deadly game of cat and mouse. Geometry of fire is the watchword of the day as they regulate the movement of their platoons trying to stay on line with flanking sister units while maintaining aggressive contact to the front. Often the only things these captains have to go on are the tin can garble of radio traffic, the sound of gunfire, and rising plumes of smoke. They ultimately have to trust their own experience and intuition. Most will tell you what a challenge it is to restrain a company of Marines once their blood is up, the scent fresh and the chase is afoot. With their personal entourage of radiomen in tow they leapfrog forward through gaping holes sledge hammered and blasted into walls by the advancing squads. Identifying the Iraqi home with the highest roof, a temporary command post and overwatch is set up, and the advance to the next phase line intitiated. The radiomen set up their gear and collapse into shady corners. These hybrid grunts,loaded down with personal gear, weapons, ammo, radio and extra batteries, carry more than anyone on the battlefield. Often they have to sprint to the next position over walls and down exposed alleyways. A common sight is a RO (radio operator)bent over Quasimoto-like, leaning heavily on his rifle and leashed by a corkscrewing handset cord to an officer.

Another form of communication on the battlefield is more intimate and basic. It's the communication between the military working dog handlers and their canine charges. These Marines, with their explosives sniffing assistants, dart from one IED or weapons cache' site to another. Marine and dog are inseperable day and night. With subtle hand signals and firm commands the handler manages his dog. With kind words, pats on the head, close body contact and treats he keeps his buddy's morale up. Most dog handlers I've spoken with will quickly tell you how sensitive their dogs are to the stress of combat. They are very attuned to signs, like listlessness and weight loss, that suggest PTSD is starting to affect their partner.

Somewhere unseen in the battle space are the snipers. From their "hides" they send out final death notices sealed in 173 grains of 7.62mm lead. On the shoulders of these highly trained marksmen rests a weight of divine proportion. Unseen and with mythic skill they protect their fellow Marines from afar, and are the last person to see the unwary insurgent take his final earthly breath.

Communication to the Man Upstairs is also addressed out among the sound of gunfire and the acrid smell of cordite. Chaplains and religious program specialists roam the battlefield offering words of encouragement and listening ears. The portrait accompanying this post is of "padre" Lieutenant Bryan Crittendon USN. I traveled with him in the back of a amphibious assault vehicle out into the mean streets of Husayba, Iraq. His tired worldly eyes sparkled with a special infectious light; the personification of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is an interesting and appropriate word in this case. It comes from the Greek, entheos, which means God within, and this chaplain, a former Marine helicopter pilot, was fully possessed of it.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Ar Ramadi Images

Belt of Iraqi 7.62mm x 54R Machine Gun Ammo

"Jundi"....an Iraqi Soldier

Aid Station and Battle Position

Saddam Mosque

Sergeant of the Guard Making the Rounds

Looking Down MSR Michigan Towards Government Center

The city of Ar Ramadi was a target rich environment visually alive with people, objects and surfaces. Here are several photographs of things mentioned in the previous entry along with a few others to give some sense of the atmosphere that pervades a place such as OP Horea. Here is the face of an Iraqi jundi, brave and generous. The Marines, weary of MREs, look forward to their invitations to share home cooked meals on the first deck. A sergeant of the guard disolves in the dappled light under the mantle of camouflage netting. A belt of machine gun ammunition at the ready coiled and deadly. A view of Saddam Mosque as seen from a fighting position, and a devestated stretch of MSR Michigan lying between Government Center and OP Horea at twilight. In future postings you'll be presented with essays in the form of images to hopefully deepen an appreciation of the texture of life in this troubled city.

We're Surrounded...That Simplifies the Problem

"All right, they're on our left, they're on our right, they're in front of
us, they're behind us...they can't get away this time"
- Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, USMC

We Marines have long cultivated a penchant for being surrounded by the enemy and convincing ourselves this is a good thing. Our Corps' lore is steeped in legendary encirclements from the Boxer Rebellion in Peking, to the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, and the Khe Sanh firebase in Vietnam. To this list will be added Observation Post Horea in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. The main artery running through Ramadi is called Main Supply Route (MSR) Michigan. Between the Saddam Mosque and the Government Center lies a stretch of MSR Michigan that once sprouted IEDs the way Chia Pets grow hair. Other than Route Irish, the main road to Baghdad International Airport, this street was the deadliest in Iraq. Several months back the Marines of 3rd Battalion 7th Marine Regiment (3/7) stood up an isolated outpost on Michigan in the bombed out remains of a former Iraqi government passport agency. From this vantage point, where the road bends, they could observe both the Government Center (manned by Marines as well) and the Saddam Mosque (alleged source of terrorist hijinx). The insurgents, appreciating the tactical advantage gained by the Marines with this move, quickly began daily attacks on OP Horea employing rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), heavy machine gun fire, and mortars. The surrounding buildings bear the unmistakable scars of failed insurgent assaults. I'm happy to report that during my 3 day sojourn at the OP there were no attacks. Additionally, no IEDs were detonated against coalition forces during by entire 10 day visit to Ar Ramadi. This is not to say that none were planted by the insurgency, but those secreted onto the street were found and destroyed by emergency ordnance disposal teams (EOD). Unable to bury IEDs with their usual care and stealth, the terrorists have been reduced to quickly dropping packages out of car doors. OP Horea is garrisoned by a team of Marines and Iraqi soldiers. Together they share the dangers and hardships of manning Horea's five posts around the clock. Together they live as best they can in the dark bombed out gothic interior; the Marines taking the second floor and the Iraqi "jundi" (Arabic for soldier) the first. The Marines, not ones to give compliments, freely remark about the growing competency and aggressiveness of their jundi counterparts. Up on Horea's roof there's a forest of poles supporting a canopy of camouflage netting creating a wonderland of dappled shadows over the sandbagged fighting positions. Poking my head into the claustrophobic confines of the main observation positions, the ever professional tactical lance corporals report their posts with a simple introductory comment "Sir, I cannot stand up due to the sniper threat", after which a detailed litany of lateral limits, key terrain features, fields of fire and rules of engagement are recited. They point out major structures from which they've taken fire with nicknames like "The Gay Palace", "Swiss Cheese Building" and "Beirut Hotel". More than once the sergeant of the guard, with respectful but firm diplomacy, chased me from a spot I've selected to sketch with cautionary words about snipers and indirect fire. Most of my visual experience of OP Horea, therefore, is captured in photographs, rather than drawings. I've returned to the relative comfort and safety of Camp Fallujah. The Marines of F/3/7 are still out there in the goo, manning Horea with the enemy exactly where they and the ghost of Chesty Puller would have them, to the front, back, left and right.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Wax and Wane

Camp Ramadi Logistics Operation Center in a Sea of Mud

Mail Run Off-load at Hurricane Point, Ramadi

I'm back at Camp Fallujah after 10 days in Ar Ramadi, the provincial capitol of Al Anbar Province. I departed Fallujah in the wee hours of the 10th and arrived at Camp Ramadi after a chilly 2 hour hop under a waxing moon. We deplaned that evening with long moonshadows following us across a mud flat to awaiting HUMVEEs, our boots making "shtick,shtick" sounds in the cold thick goo. Over the hum of idling vehicles could be heard the thud of boot heels banging against bumpers, doors and tires in vain efforts to shake the best of Mesopotamia off of Alley Oop'ed feet. We were wisked to the transient tent only to be awakened around 0700 to the blare of sirens and a disembodied voice entoning "INCOMING,INCOMING". Three distant impacts were followed by the all clear signal. Thanks to a healthy dose of adrenaline and a growling stomach, I made my way to the chow hall with a little less than 3 hours sleep under my belt. I hooked up with my point of contact and made arrangements to go out to Hurricane Point and then on to Observaton Point(OP)Horea with the afternoon mail run. The unit I spent time with in Ramadi was Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment. This, their third Iraqi deployment, has found them in Ramadi since last August. Ramadi, the seat of Al Anbar politics, has placed F/3/7 in continuous contact with insurgents and terrorists from day one. I'll post more particulars, artwork and photos from my time in Ramadi in following entries. My flight home last night was under a waning and equally cold moon. The double shadows of the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters flowed across the moon lit landscape below me. Fortunately, the mud, though still hiding at the margins of roads and paths, is now more the consitancy of kneaded bread, rather than potter's slurry or an infant's....well you get the picture.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Back Into the Goo

Marines have started to call being out in the field close to the fight the "goo". Jarheads stuck inside the wire in support activities are chided by those outside as "leaf eaters"; the guys out in the "goo" being "meat eaters". Well, I'm sharpening my canines and packing up my gear for a trip out to the sticky parts. Later tonight the dark figure of an embark Marine, with a blue chem stick in hand and night vision goggles, will lead myself and a few others into the back of a darkened helicopter "turning and burning" on the camp's makeshift airstrip. The helo's crewchief will quickly take note of the final destination penned with an indelible marker on the back of our left hands, and point us to our seats. We'll carefully move up the back ramp slick from hydraulic fluid and engine oil, drop our packs, insure our rifles are muzzle down and strap ourselves in. The air in the cabin will be dense with engine exhaust, the seats and rough non-skid deck vibrating beneath us, and our ears, despite hearing protection, will be overwhelmed by the high frequency whine of the engines and transmission. There is a dull sense of implosion from the fumes, weight of your gear, and the pressure created by foam plugs pushed deep into ear canals. Reaching into an invisible recess the crewchief throws the toggle switch that triggers the back ramp to raise up and signal our imminent departure. The two aircrew (crewchief and first mechanic), their passenger and stowage duties complete, segue seamlessly into their inflight role of door gunners with choreographed precision. They coil up their intercom's long cord with nonchalanced grace, stand over respective .50 calibre machine guns, and chamber the inital round with a forceful double pull of the charging handle. The interior of the bird goes completely dark, the crewchief turns towards us one last time, the eerie chartreuse glow of his NVGs pointed momentarily in our direction. The roar of the engines and the fwapping of the rotor blades rises suddenly as the aircraft shudders into the air. Ascending into the night you hope you've picked a seat that's not directly in the path of the icy air that floods into the cabin from the open gun positions. Next stop.....Ramadi.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Tip of the Spear

Of all the various Marines in forward units the guys with the most legitimate claim to the tip of the spear are the combat engineers. Whatever the circumstances may be you can rest assured that the sappers go in first. They lead the way down newly trodden roads and paths with metal detectors. When entry to a hostile building is required they run up and place the charge of C-4 on the door. They're also responsible for performing basic construction and simple carpentry tasks when a new firm base or observation post is being set up. There's no rest for the weary when it comes to these multi-tasked Marines.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Warp and Weft

Weathered wall

A lone rose growing out of bracken pile



Rusty tent pegs

Freshly opened packages

Weathered lettering

Eucalyptus bark

Iraqi tumbleweed

Winter fruit on a eucalyptus tree

Dried roots of an overturned date palm

Last season's reeds dried and fading

Downy bullrushes

"It was the kind of experience that matured me and personalized the abstract"
From Robert D. Kaplan's The Arabists

I've got a Zen thing going today. Describing the weave of the daily fabric of life in this land torn by conflict, and being stiched back together with hope and blood is difficult. The garment tailored from this freshly woven cloth is both hair shirt and silken morning coat. Getting our sense of this place, Iraq, from television or newspapers, in my opinion, grants only a cheap knock-off version of the genuine article. In certain instances the result is a set of "emperor's new clothes". The news is so focused on the political, the statistical and the sensational. (And, I suspect that the underlying purpose behind the mass media is to fixate us to the flat TV screen or the pages of print with an eye to advertising revenue, rather than on genuine informing.) Granted, these are part and parcel to reality, but they're also like surface tension on the expanse of the ocean. Alot is covered horizontally, but there's no sense of the depth. In the news things are happening to someone else, somewhere distant and alien; a place where the laws of nature and physics fit more neatly into simpler equations and concepts. Apples fall from trees differently, the dirt at your feet is not the same, and if you study people real close you'll perhaps find minor anatomical features missing. The lives and physical worlds of far off people are somehow not as complex; their impoverished inner lives not as nuanced and footnoted as ours. For your edification I give you a small photo essay of seemingly minor yet omnipresent things around Camp Fallujah. These could be the very things that might catch your fancy were you to suddenly find yourself here. And finding yourself wandering about the camp fascinated, despite the obvious dangers, by the novelty of even the smallest of details. These pictures, taken today, represent some of the small threads and strands that the Marines, without even knowing it, weave a new day from.

Early Morning Visitors

*double click on images to enlarge

White Throated Kingfisher

White Cheeked Bulbuls

Pied Kingfisher Couple

Hovering Pied Kingfisher


The weather this morning is overcast and brisk. Adjacent to the building here at Camp Fallujah housing my makeshift studio there's a half-acre pond surrounded by palms and flowering ornamental shrubs. On sunny days it's a nice place to just sit, relax and think deep thoughts. Today the usual suspects were active around it; magpies, white cheeked bulbuls, sparrows all puffed up in the chill air and a pair of very distinguished looking geese waddling about hoping for handouts. This morning there was a special treat, a pair of pied kingfishers plying the pond for food. The pond, about six feet deep at the center, is well stocked with a variety of orange and cream koi and chinese goldfish. There are three varieties of kingfishers in Iraq, and I've seen two, the white throated and the pied, fishing this pond. They only seem to appear in the early morning. An observant fellow Marine suggested that perhaps the angle of the sunlight has something to do with it. These kingfishers, at first glance, look like oversized hummingbirds hovering and manuevering with quick starts and stops above the water. Suspended in mid-air and then dropping with lightning speed into the water, these stout long peaked birds are as graceful as they are deadly. They hover at a height close enough to observe the furious beating of their wings and the quick rudder adjustments of their lobster-like tails. Today's pair were obviously male and female. Although both were black and white, as you can see in the photos, with obvious differences in their size and color pattern. If you know, based on the pictures, which is male and which is female, please enlighten us.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Homage to Herodotus and Farris Hassan

Yesterday I read comments that author Robert Kaplan made while being interviewed about his new book Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground. Here's a particular quote that caught my eye. He's speaking of a Greek historian who wrote about the military and war in his day.

"... but you know, of all the classical writers, the one I admire the most is Herodotus, because Herodotus doesn't write about one subject. He describes landscapes. He describes personalities. He gives stories. He recreates a world of what people believe."

I found this interesting in light of both my endeavors, and the mainstream media attention focused this past week on a Florida high school junior who skipped school to travel here to Iraq. Farris Hassan, inspired by the idea of immersion journalism, trekked to Iraq to see for himself the reality on the street in his parent's homeland. I think I'm a combination of both of them; the curious archetypical sage with a bad case of adolescent omnipotence.

The drawings I include today show Marines who've been waiting hours for a helicopter ride out of a forward operating base. These guys are what's referred to as "assorted cats and dogs". Marines with specialized skills, such as photojournalists, dog handlers with their bomb sniffing canine cohorts, satellite communications specialists and of course, yours truly, who've been attached to operational combat units for the duration of a specific fight. After the operation is over they're detached and left to their own devices to retrograde back to home commands for further assignments. This means signing up for space "A" (A for available) flights and then waiting for hours in the sun on some rough graveled landing strip hoping that a sortie of helos shows up that's eventually going your way and has enough room for you and all your stuff. Hurry up and wait is the order of the day. These guys, though they make small talk with each other, mostly sit exhausted among their piles of gear lost in sleep or thought. These particular groups wait at Al Qaim, an abandoned railroad maintenance yard in the farthest reaches of the western Iraqi desert.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Bringing in the New Year, Enshalah!

*click on image to enlarge

Happy New Year to one and all! A couple of insurgents did their level best to help us bring in the New Year last evening by launching a salvo of rockets at the base. Nary a scratch was suffered by anyone here on the receiving end of this small bit of indirect fire. Enshalah!

Here is a sketch of a light armored reconnaissance Marine "taking a knee" on a patrol in one of the dusty villages spotting the hills above Hit, Iraq. The lion's share of time outside the wire is spent in keen observation. In this drawing I wanted to focus on the one intensely vigilant eye of this Marine peering out from under his helmet. The building he leans up against is typical of western Iraq; stones loosely stacked with minimal mortar followed with a secondary application of rough haphazard stucco. One is always aware, especially here in Al Anbar Province, of the thin veil between the natural and the man made. The Iraqis seem to favor welded metal grillwork set into the walls as windows, with or without the benefit of glass. Most towns and villages have several very busy metal working shops cranking out a variety of door, gate and window treatments. The metal workers often use little more than a piece of cardboard to marginally protect their eyes from the flash of electric arch welders. There is also a proliferation of satellite dishes on even the poorest of homes. Out from the cool shadowy interiors you hear the locals watching everything from Islamic religious shows, to "The Simpsons" and "Everybody Loves Raymond". They have a multitude of channels featuring elaborate MTV style music videos performed by popular Arabic singers, both male and female. Many of these videos feature fashions and scenerios that fly in the face of any notion that Muslims are not great romantics.